Save Yourselves

'You're Killing Us': Mozambique's Deadly Cyclones Are Only Getting Worse

Exactly one year after two cyclones displaced tens of thousands of people, experts are warning that climate change will only intensify the problem.

by Ed Ram
19 March 2020, 11:37am

Antonia Fernando. All photos: Ed Ram

It's 3 PM and Manuel Osman is drinking in a makeshift bar made out of dried mud and wood. "We come here to forget," he tells me. The little hut is in the middle of Mutua resettlement camp, one of central Mozambique's 71 designated zones that have been assigned to help accommodate the nearly 100,000 victims displaced by Cyclone Idai.

Osman used to be a fisherman, living on the banks of the Pungwe River. On the 14th of March 2019, Idai's 120-mile-per-hour rain and winds smashed through thousands of square miles around his coastal city of Beira, destroying houses, crops and livelihoods. When Pungwe burst its banks, Osman's family home – made of mud and bamboo with a zinc roof – was washed away in minutes by flood water.

"The water was rising fast so we ran for the nearest tree and climbed up," he explains. "There were snakes in the water. My youngest son was exhausted and started to fall asleep. He fell out of the tree down into the current below. I went into the water after him but I got stuck in the branches of a tree and he was swept away. That was the last time I saw him." Osman and the rest of his family were stuck up there for four days. "We tried to eat uncooked rice with water," he said. Eventually they were saved by a boat sent by a relative.

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A tower block in Beira.

The cyclone left more than 1,300 people dead and robbed tens of thousands of others of everything. "We don't know how to restart," Osman says. "We have no money and no way of making money here. Idai took my boat, my nets, my equipment and my son."

As part of a programme to stimulate an economy in the camps, the UN has built two fishing lakes in the Mutua resettlement camp so people can farm fish. The local State Secretary, Stela da Graça Novo Pinto Zeca, told me in Biera that the Mozambique government and the UN are committed to developing these resettlement camps "into small towns and villages with streets and sewage systems with drinkable water and electrical systems".

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Petro Manuel

New buildings will be able to withstand cyclones, and people will be helped to better withstand droughts, she explained. But regardless of the government's efforts, there is one reality a government-run programme cannot easily fix: Mozambique is the 28th most vulnerable country to climate change in the world. It's also one of the poorest, and right now it's struggling to cope with the impact of increasingly erratic weather.

Speaking to me by the seafront in Beria, Myrta Kaulard, the UN's Resident Coordinator in Mozambique, explains how the climate crisis is increasing the risk of cyclones, droughts and flooding, trapping millions of people in a "vicious cycle of instability".

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Beira.

When Idai hit land, it crashed into the city of Beira, ripping through its already crumbling tower blocks. "Beria and the surrounding area is located on a floodplain," explains Filipe Lucio, an expert at the World Meteorological Organization. "Rivers from higher ground flow in from the continent and much of the surrounding land is below sea level."

Years ago, the old Portuguese colonial city was briefly one of the top holiday destinations in Africa, but those days are gone. Old hotels by the beach serve as battered squats, and roads are strewn with potholes.

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Praia Nova in Beira.

Idai was the first of two cyclones to make landfall in Mozambique in six weeks. Cyclone Kenneth hit the north of the country in late April 2019, and was the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in Mozambique on record. The cyclones destroyed 700,000 hectares of crops – largely maize, beans and rice – just before the main harvest season. Families not only lost their remaining reserves of food, they also lost all the crops they planned to harvest and sell. The problem was compounded when Buzi, a low lying area west of Beira on the mouth of the Pungwe River, flooded again in February 2020, destroying crops and impacting 72,000 people.

In Ndjenja resettlement camp, Marcus Gomes explains to me how he also took refuge up a tree when the storm hit. "My 15-year-old son saved my life when I tripped and became trapped in the water on the way as we ran to the tree," he remembers. "After a night in the tree wrapped in branches, we made it to the highway and managed to get to shelter. I thought I was going to die."

His home is larger than many in the camp, but it's still made of mud and sticks. "It's not going to withstand the next cyclone but I need to have a place to live," he adds. "The house I used to live in was made of concrete, but Idai tore the roof off and one of the walls blew down."

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A makeshift home in a resettlement camp.

The UN is currently teaching climate-smart agricultural techniques to farmers, and giving them seeds to plant crops. Some farmers are being trained so they can pass on their skills to others. But when crops are destroyed by droughts, cyclones and floods, people eventually become too reliant on aid.

Praia Nova, Beira’s informal fishing community built on the beach, has been hit the hardest in the area. Damage from Idai is visible everywhere – carcasses of ships submerged in sand clutter the beach and walls of ruined houses taper toward the sea.

"It's a highly fragile area, so it's not an objective from the government to make people believe they can still live there, what we have tried to do is relocate the people who live in Praia Nova to other camps," Pinto Zeca explained. Still, many have stayed. Soninho João Luíz Amade was in his beach house made when the cyclone hit. "By the time I realised I should have escaped it was too late," he told me.

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Soninho João Luíz Amade.

Amade looks after outboard motors for fishing boats. He and his wife hid inside while Idai destroyed the only two brick houses between them and the sea. “There were three big waves about ten metres high," Amade said, “that’s what did most of the damage. We’re all terrified of another cyclone, but we don’t have a choice – this is where our livelihoods are, the city is too expensive, we can't live anywhere else."

Delcia Alvis is 25 and has four young children. She used to live in Praia Nova selling vegetables and fruit in the market on the side of the road. Now she lives in Savane, a resettlement camp two and half hours from Beira. "I don’t work here," she tells me. "I’d like to restart my business but I can't afford to buy things to sell and no one here has any money to buy anything anyway. I worry about my children; we don't have any electricity and people steal stuff at night," said Alvis.

The UN has a presence in all 71 resettlement camps. As well as farming materials and food, they provide water and sanitation, support for women facing gender-based violence, health centres treating malnourished children and temporary schools. But if another cyclone hit, crops would be destroyed, tents would blow away, mud houses would disintegrate and work would have to start again from scratch.

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"According to the IPCC report there is going to be less rain and an increase in temperature in southern Mozambique," Filipe Lucio of the World Meteorological Organization told me over the phone from Geneva. "This can lead to drought and an increase in forest fires but as most of the increase in air temperature is absorbed by the oceans, you’ll have a warmer ocean which will be a good ingredient for much stronger cyclones. As we move into warmer climates the number of tropical cyclones might decrease, however the intensity of the tropical cyclones, because of the warm sea, is going to be much higher."

Many in the resettlement camps are extremely concerned by the climate crisis. I asked Osman whether he has a message for the countries contributing the most to the changing climate. "You are killing us," he said.

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"My children get scared when it starts to rain," said Antonia Fernando. The 28-year-old gave birth the day after the cyclone, and lives in one of the many communities near Beria that hasn't been resettled. Nine months pregnant, she had to run though the storm when the roof blew off her home. "I haven't had the money to replace it," she said.

At the Mutua resettlement camp, a crackly sound system powered by solar panels is playing some R&B. Pedro Manuel, the owner of the bar, is hanging with his friend Osman. They were neighbours before the cyclone, and they are neighbours in the camp now. "I sell about five litres of local alcohol a day, but, to be honest, I often don't charge for it," Manuel told me. "No one here has any money. And any money I make goes towards feeding my family."

There are six weeks left of the cyclone season here, but climate change marches on. If the frequency of extreme weather events increases, aid agencies will struggle to build anything at all, with emergency relief continuing to take priority, trapping many thousands of people in a vicious cycle of avoidable ruin.

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environment
mozambique
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Cyclone Idai